Social Soup: The Fight for Food Workers’ Wage Equality

"Wage hike or strike." Milwaukee joins the fast food protests. Photo by Light Brigading, Flickr/Creative Commons.

Milwaukee joins the fast food protests. Photo by Light Brigading, Flickr/Creative Commons

By Shaun Daniel, Sustainability Resource Center

Fast food workers going on strike for a living wage, in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City, and 155 other cities. Starbucks baristas in New York and San Francisco fighting for the right to unionize and an end to uncertain work schedules. Jimmy Johns employees in Baltimore and Minneapolis demanding paid sick leave and an end to firings when they can’t find a replacement. Calls for an anti-wage theft bill in Washington, D.C. Seattle’s approval of a $15 minimum wage.

All these efforts form part of the fight for food workers’ wage equality that is the subject of tomorrow’s Social Soup from 12-1:30 pm in the Marriott Library’s Gould Auditorium.

Katie Hunt, PhD Candidate in the Department of Communication.

Katie Hunt, PhD candidate in the Department of Communication.

Katie Hunt, a PhD candidate in the Department of Communication at the University of Utah, will share insights from her doctoral research on food workers, food justice, and the labor movement. The title of Hunt’s presentation is “‘The W is for Workers’: S.L.O.W. food and the Fight for Food Workers’ Wage Equality.”

In her presentation, Hunt will focus on ways that restaurant and fast food workers are striving to insert themselves into the food justice movement. She notes that the broader food movement has been slow to recognize the issue, more often focusing on workers’ rights and struggles in terms of agricultural labor and food processing (such as slaughterhouse workers who aren’t allowed to leave the line and therefore wear adult diapers to avoid the risk of losing their jobs).

SocialSoup - W is for Workers - Nov 2014Food security—the ability to secure food for oneself and one’s family—is of particular interest for Hunt. Along with grassroots efforts, she has been studying policy like the Farm Bill and the way that it supports and shapes food security. “The case of food workers asks us to rethink food security in a really interesting way,” Hunt says.

Bringing a communication focus to the issue, Hunt is interested in “how we force upon the poor this discourse of employment,” in particular that “food is predicated on employment.”

Frequently, perception of those seeking food assistance is that they should get a job—something more easily said than done in the post-recession environment of limited opportunities, competition among job seekers, lower wages, and many more part-time jobs than full-time. Hunt says that when people do get a job, such as in the food service industry, they might find themselves trapped in a low-wage, part-time position, making just a little too much to qualify for food assistance but still in need.

Paradoxically, food workers experience some of the highest rates of food insecurity. They are caught in a double-bind, Hunt notes: working to provide food for others while personally struggling to put food on the table.

It’s the current system that creates the category of the “working poor,” says Hunt. “Politicians don’t know what to do with these people because they’re caught in this gap.”

Despite a common perception that fast food jobs are “entry level” and occupied by high school kids, workers in businesses like McDonald’s and Burger King tend to be older. The median age is 28. Restaurant Opportunity Centers (ROC) United reports that there are 10.1 million restaurant workers in the United States, comprising almost 10 percent of the private sphere workforce. Some of the recent demonstrations and organizing have set their sights on issues of wage theft, racial and gender discrimination, sexual harassment, lack of benefits, and low wages that leave about half of restaurant workers below the federal poverty line for a family of three. ROC United provides support to such workers “fighting for specific mechanisms for upward mobility,” as Hunt puts it.

The viral image that propelled Jimmy Johns workers demands onto the national stage.

The viral image that propelled Jimmy Johns workers demands onto the national stage.

Given recent organizing efforts, there is a push to expand consideration for fair, living wages and better working conditions to all food workers. The goal, Hunt says, is to work toward equity across the food system.

Gains have been made in the last several years. For example, a number of food workers have received improved sick leave, and many “tipped workers,” such as restaurant wait staff, have won an improved minimum wage. All the same, the federal minimum wage for tipped workers remains at $2.13.

Hunt, who is also the sustainability coordinator for Campus Dining Services, helped start the Social Soup Lecture Series in 2011 after a group of students, staff, and faculty brought the idea to the Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund (SCIF). The aim of the monthly event has been to raise awareness about the social, economic, and environmental issues surrounding food.

McDonalds workers in Chicago on the first day of nationwide fast food strikes. Photo by Steve Rhodes, Flickr/Creative Commons.

McDonalds workers in Chicago on the first day of nationwide fast food strikes. Photo by Steve Rhodes, Flickr/Creative Commons

This is the first year that Social Soup has explored the issue of wages and labor in the food system. In September, Saru Jayaraman spoke on social justice in the restaurant industry in a presentation entitled, “Behind the Kitchen Door.”

Although raising awareness often takes a back seat to efforts aimed at mobilizing people and changing policy, Hunt still sees an important place for it in the food movement. “It’s good if we can get people thinking about the greater and greater complexities of the food system,” she says.

Hunt adds, “We always face the tension between the immediate need and the broader issue of instrumental changes.”

To learn more about the efforts of food workers for wage equality and how this fits into the food movement, come to Social Soup tomorrow in the Gould Auditorium. Each presentation features a different soup, always vegetarian and locally sourced this year from Real Food Rising. For more info on the lecture series, visit Utahns Against Hunger.

Shaun Daniel is a graduate student in Environmental Humanities and a graduate assistant in the Sustainability Resource Center.

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